Water, creativity and meaning: multidisciplinary understandings of human-water relationships (Roberts and Phillips, 2018)

Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt

HD Roberts, L. and Phillips, K. 2018. Water, creativity and meaning: multidisciplinary understandings of human-water relationships. London: Routledge. ISBN 9781138087668, pp. 271, £120..

(URL: https://www.crcpress.com/Water-Creativity-and-Meaning-Multidisciplinary-understandings-of-human-water/Roberts-Phillips/p/book/9781138087668)

Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt

Australian National University, Canberra, Australia;  kuntala.lahiri-dutt@anu.edu.au

To cite this Review: Lahiri-Dutt, K. 2020. Review of "Water, creativity and meaning: multidisciplinary understandings of human-water relationships", Routledge, 2018, by Liz Roberts and Katherine Phillips, Water Alternatives, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/boh/item/97-creativity


Literature on human-water relationship covers a broad swathe, expanding across the disciplinary borders of anthropology, geography, and history, bringing to life the spiritual, the poetic, the sensory, and the aesthetic within our discourses. Just as water straddles across the human and social-cultural-spiritual worlds, the literature on water has also spilt over these artificial boundaries. Indeed, research on water has increasingly become multidisciplinary, although true interdisciplinarity has remained out of the reach.

Liz Roberts and Katherine Phillips have worked consciously to move across disciplinary boundaries to find the elusive interdisciplinary ground in research on water. They locate and describe waters that constitute different human-water relationships by incorporating lay/local/plural knowledge(s) through this volume, and argue that integrating multiple voices is not simply a matter of adding on, but requires alternate ways of ‘knowing’ where the subject/object relationship of knowledge-making is fundamentally altered to make space for the ‘others’ via creative processes.

The creative processes are presented in 14 well-written chapters by scholars ranging from literature, human geography, philosophy, and environment, as well as visual and theatre artists. This team of contributors is itself fascinating, and the chapters offer diverse ways of hydro-social relations.

To elucidate "the shifting sense of meaning that water takes on in different contexts, embodiments and relationships" (p. 1), Roberts and Phillips explain creativity as 'distributed', as thought-experiments, and as everyday tactics. Therefore, creativity and creative practices (of water researchers) are seen collectively to show how ecological research takes place every day in the most mundane of circumstances whereby all the ordinary folks participate in it along with the researcher. Creative practitioners seek newer ways of participating in, and engaging with, people and water, and as they do so, they also explore the interactions and interfaces in different ways. The creative ways of thinking and doing can, on a number of levels, as the editors argue, ‘enable the development of different relationships (with water, with a sense of self, with a sense of community and belonging)’ (p. 2). This is asserted by Lorraine Leeson in Chapter 1, who shows how creativity, like water, can enable flows, and can carry energy, directing and redistributing it through a steady and continuous passage. This process-oriented knowledge-making, instead of remaining isolated in the ivory tower of the academia, includes arts where alternative relations with water can be made visible. Therefore, the idea of agency is central to this volume, where we can see an incipient beginning of the shifting of the emphasis from the creator and creation (as in an end product) to the routes where multiple actors and their diverse actions are acknowledged. The process attributes agency to the audience; for example, Chapter 2 (by Luci Gorell Barnes) and Chapter 3 (by Antony Lyons) outline processes in which the authors engage with their audiences of meaning-making, give up and change the tack, and hope that the readers will take up the thread to extend them any which way they want.

These chapters are preceded by an excellent introduction that explains why this novel approach is ushering a new era for human-water relationships. This introduction shows how the technocratic realm of water management with its attendant notions of 'modern water' (Linton, 2010) has led to modes of water governance that are inadequate to usher in the radical shift of understanding that is urgently needed for socially and environmentally just and sustainable ways of thinking and managing water.

The chapters are tidily arranged into four parts. The first, 'Fluid Processes: Creative Research with Water', contains four chapters that exemplify how creative facilitation can create knowledge spaces. The fourth chapter, by Lyndsey Bakewell, Antonia Liguori, and Michael Wilson, draws upon a traditional conflict resolution method from the Gallura region of Sardinia to combine it with the performances of storytelling, music, and visual art to encourage conversations within the community to build stronger, more coherent community relationships with water. This chapter exemplifies how creative water management might look like in practice and how such water management then can potentially transform policies to expand what is meant by water governance. The second part, 'Becoming Water Bodies', comprises three chapters that explore embodied and multisensory modes of experiencing water. The third part, 'Water We Know?', brings together three chapters that illustrate ways in which knowledge about water can be produced or represented. In this part, the most interesting is Chapter 8 (by Rebecca L. Farnum, Ruth Macdougall, and Charlie Thompson) that deconstructs the hydrological cycle to create a hydro-social spiral with participants through workshops and discussions. The fourth and final part, 'When Water Disrupts: Water as Agent and Co-constitutor of Place and Culture', comprises four well-researched and brilliantly articulated excellent chapters that present a diverse examples from a number of contexts ranging from the informal settlements in Delhi to Kiribati to Oregon to reveal different aspects of water politics.

This volume crosses disciplinary borders to combine history, literature, arts, anthropology, and traditional narratives of water. The result is a powerful critique of methodology and interpretation, offering productive ways of engaging with new ways of doing research on water. The hardcover book is beautifully designed with an evocative cover, and is pleasant to hold in one’s hands, adding a rare sensory component to its reading.


Linton, J. 2010. What is water? The history of a modern abstraction. Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.


Additional Info

  • Author(s): Liz Roberts and Katherine Phillips
  • Year of publication: 2018
  • Publisher: Routledge
  • Subject: Water ethics, Water and community
  • Type: Review
  • Review author: Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt
  • Language: English